Plants
by Patty Somlo

            It started with a question Katherine Ash asked her husband, Moussa Ndiaye, the tall, lanky African everyone knew as Mo.

            “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place to grow fresh herbs and vegetables, Mo?”

            Mo nodded. Yes, that would be nice, but impossible, as his wife surely knew. He and Katherine lived in a six-flat building, feet away from buildings on either side, without a tree or bit of green in sight.

            But then Mo smiled. Was figuring out a way to give his wife a vegetable garden any more unlikely than Mo living in San Francisco, the most beautiful city in the world?

            Mo was the eighth of eight children, born to a single mother in Senegal, abandoned by her husband when the boy was barely a few months old. After being caught in a demonstration against the Senegalese government on his way to work one morning, Mo was mistakenly rounded up with the protesters and jailed. Four horrifying weeks followed, with daily rounds of interrogation and brutal torture. But, thankfully, his luck soon changed. One day, an uncle with the right connections and cash got Mo released from jail. Later, Uncle Saeed helped Mo secure a visa to the United States. The following year, he married Katherine, a tall, green-eyed actress he’d met out dancing, at a club that played African music on Saturday nights.

            Sometime back, Mo had climbed the short flight of stairs to his building’s roof. That clear, sunny day, the view stretched to the shimmering sapphire water of San Francisco Bay. Sitting across the kitchen table from Katherine now, it occurred to him that raising vegetables in containers on the roof might work, since his boss was doing exactly that.

            He jumped up from his chair and jogged across the kitchen to the enclosed porch, the room Katherine and Mo jokingly referred to as the den. With large windows on three sides, the sunlit space was furnished with a fat folded futon they dubbed the couch, and a small TV set, balanced atop a cheap, gold-colored metal stand. A door on the righthand side opened to a narrow set of stairs.

            Mo took the stairs two at a time. When he reached the top, he unlocked a second door and stepped outside.

            “What are you doing?” Katherine shouted. Mo was too far away to hear.

            The early morning fog had lifted, and the sky was bright. Mo began to walk, tracing a careful circle around the roof’s perimeter, testing its strength. As he gradually edged closer to the center, his excitement mounted.

            “Lots of pots,” he announced, his long arms opened wide, welcoming all the thriving greenery he was anticipating. “And places to sit. And eat. And drink.”

            He laughed, delighted at the very thought.

            We can come here in the summer, he mused, forgetting that June, July and August in San Francisco were the coldest months, especially at night, when a blanket of thick fog smothered the sky. If anyone were to remind him, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

            Mo had never owned a plant before, either in Senegal or California. A few years back, the man with the irrepressible smile who everyone adored had become a pasta chef, at a trendy neighborhood bistro, Tomato. Starting as a cook’s helper, Mo was promoted to pasta chef, after only four months on the job.

            The owner’s decision to move Mo up had been a wise one. Mo’s exuberant personality quickly turned dining at Tomato into an event. Working in the open kitchen, flipping pasta into the air from a shiny silver pan, Mo spun stories and sometimes sang. People now went to Tomato not only for the delicious, reasonably-priced linguini and fresh clams or the free glass of house wine while waiting in line outside, but also for Mo’s performance, usually played off several sidekick chefs, all of whom had immigrated to the United States, from countries as close as Mexico and as far away as Iran.

            The thought didn’t enter Mo’s mind that raising a garden in pots atop the roof of a six-flat building in San Francisco, midway between the heavily Latino Mission District and the predominantly gay Castro, would require considerable learning about horticulture. It also wouldn’t have mattered. Now that he’d imagined fun gatherings with the other tenants, surrounded by sweet-smelling herbs and colorful flowers, nothing was going to stand in his way.

            The next morning, Mo drove to the nursery. He wandered around the crowded outdoor space, his gaze moving from rose bushes to bougainvillea, then on to basil and tiny tomato seedlings, overwhelmed by the bright, varied colors and interesting shapes. Each time an employee asked if he needed help, Mo answered, “Oh, no, no, no. I am just looking.”

            He was advised to take as much time as he needed.

 

            Katherine, and nearly all the tenants in the other five flats, had lived in the building for years, since long before the neighborhood became desirable and rents unaffordable. They knew one another from brief encounters in the gloomy halls, last-minute loans of corkscrews and borrowed spices, and commiserating over the building’s long-lingering problems. The most all-consuming issue had been the lack of a locked front gate. Every other apartment building on the block had one, which meant that 3538 Sixteenth Street rolled out the welcome mat each night to the homeless, who called streets in the neighborhood home.

            The oldest tenant at seventy-five, but looking years younger, with her champagne-tinted hair and tall, slim frame, Anna De Niro was the first person to step out her door each morning. Her flat, Number A on the first floor, sat closest to the wide-open entrance. She still had the local paper delivered, and enjoyed reading it, with her first sips of Peet’s French Roast Coffee, brewed by setting a brown plastic filter atop her favorite blue porcelain cup.

            Anna had begun dreading the moment when she opened her door. Too many mornings, a guy reeking of sweat, unwashed clothes and cheap wine was stretched out and snoring, inches from where she stood.

            Anthony Jackson occupied the flat above Anna’s. A light-skinned African American man with pale olive-green eyes, he had lived in the building longest, which was why the other tenants looked to him as their de facto leader, when dealing with the owner, Howard Ross. His easygoing, friendly manner enabled Anthony to occasionally nudge Ross into reluctantly spending money to improve the place. He also showed the homeless a mixture of empathy and toughness, acquired from decades working as a county probation officer, with men and women who had a hard time staying out of jail.

            By the time Mo hurried down the three flights of stairs to the first floor each morning, on his way to one of the city’s many nurseries, Anna had already walked into the hall to retrieve her paper, gagged from the stench of a large man sprawled in front of her flat, his body stretching to her neighbor Carlos Sanchez’s door, popped back inside, hurried down the hall to the kitchen, and called Anthony. Anthony was usually still in bed, when jolted awake by his samba ringtone. On hearing it, Anthony would assume it was his downstairs neighbor, Anna, and pick up, forcing his voice to sound like he’d been awake for hours. After promising to be right down, Anthony would pull on a pair of snug-fitting black jeans and a pastel-colored tee-shirt, slide his feet into some well-worn flip-flops, and head for the door.

 

            As Mo purchased plants and ferried them up to the roof, he warned Katherine against peeking.

            “You must wait until it is finished,” he said, after she’d watched him pass through the kitchen numerous times, balancing black plastic trays, filled with green leaves and shoots. “If you see it now, you will be disappointed. When it is all done, well, this will be magical.”

            Katherine smiled, hoping Mo wouldn’t drain their small savings account, trying to make an ugly black tar roof into something beautiful, like nearby Golden Gate Park. Of the two of them, Katherine was the practical one, while Mo often had his head in the clouds.

            As the weeks went by, Mo occasionally ran into one of the other tenants in the hall, as he toted plants or bags of organic soil from the car.

            “What have you got there, Mo?” Michael Collins asked one morning, a month into the project. Michael shared the second-floor flat across from Anthony with his partner, Tim Wilson.

            “Oh, just some soil,” Mo responded, moving to the right, hoping to let Michael pass quickly, so he wouldn’t have to reveal more.

            Mo knew Michael to be a talker, nearly impossible to cut off. Unfortunately, Mo’s curt answer had whetted Michael’s appetite for more.

            “Soil?” Michael asked, and laughed. “What are you doing, planting a garden in the middle of your flat?”

            Michael laughed a second time.

            Mo tried not to feel hurt by Michael’s mocking. He was tempted to launch into a description of his plans, which would include statistics he’d recently read about the health benefits of spending time in nature, surrounded by green, growing things. Mo was aware of Michael’s devotion to health. The always impeccably dressed thirty-something guy, whose snug tee-shirts showed off muscles he assiduously worked to perfection at the gym, frequently spouted natural remedies, for everything from the common cold to cancer. Even though Michael didn’t know Mo well, Mo, like others in the building, had been subjected to Michael’s food lectures, warning about the dangers of too much sugar, red meat, dairy and wheat.

            Instead of launching into a rant Mo understood would only defeat his purpose of keeping the garden under wraps, he simply said, “I am working on something. One day, I will tell you about it.”

            With that, Mo managed to slip past.

 

            Two months into the project, Mo was astonished at what he’d accomplished. Several days before, he had stumbled upon mismatched pieces of outdoor furniture at several garage sales, haggled the prices down to practically nothing, driven to the building with a rope holding the back door of his SUV tied down, and hauled the chairs and tables upstairs. Plants surrounded the furniture on all sides, with blooms of nearly every shade --- yellow roses; purple, pink and red bougainvillea; bold orange daisies; and subtle lavender. He’d already harvested handfuls of smooth green basil leaves for Katherine, who dropped them into the blender with pine nuts and olive oil, to make a startling chartreuse-colored pesto. Mo had also plucked sprigs of dill for baked salmon, and rosemary he chopped, for spreading over small red potatoes prior to roasting.

            “We are ready,” Mo announced, as he stood in the center of a grouping of chairs.

            And then he smiled.

 

            The building owner never stopped by for any reason. He owned properties throughout the neighborhood, managed by a handful of supervisors, who responded to tenant complaints by doing practically nothing. Decades before, he’d started with one building – a cheap hotel off Mission Street. To that building, and a few subsequent ones, Ross added cramped communal kitchens on each floor. He was aware that many rooms were occupied by far more people than the names on the lease. In fact, his supervisors had informed him that in some rooms, even the beds were shared. Many of the men did not have papers to work legally in the United States. They held low-paying jobs in restaurants and hotels, sending most of what they earned to families back home in Central America and Mexico. The ones who worked nights occupied a bed during the day, while those who had the day shift, got to sleep there at night.

            Using profits from his first purchases, Ross continued to buy, moving up from single occupancy room hotels to apartments, and eventually flats, that took up half or an entire floor. As rents in the city climbed, especially with the arrival of tech workers and their extravagantly high salaries, Ross found his way around the strict rent control laws, that barred him from raising rents more than once a year, and only by the rate of inflation. His careful work enabled him to discover loopholes in the rental ordinance that let him evict tenants. With the old tenant out, he could charge as much as he wanted.

            Ross had looked at 3538 Sixteenth Street, trying to finagle a way to remove the tenants, some of whom had been there for decades. Their rents were so far below market rate, it was shocking. But for some time now, the rent board had kept Ross in their sights. They knew what he was up to, and lobbied the city council to make changes in the rental laws, closing each loophole Ross found. Still, he couldn’t help but try. The neighborhood had grown more desirable since it was close to 101, the freeway tech workers took to offices in Silicon Valley.

 

            Mo didn’t notice that spot on the roof. If he had seen it, he would have been aware that some creature, probably a fat roof rat, had gnawed away the sheets protecting the framing from the elements. In fact, a hole had opened up there, large enough to let rain seep in.

            Not only that. Mo had placed a healthy geranium plant on top, its shiny green leaves and deep pink blooms spilling over the rim of the black pot. Some clear sunny mornings when Mo was daydreaming, captivated by the distant view of San Francisco Bay, he held the green plastic watering can over the geranium too long and water streamed over the sides.

            Sarah Miles lived in the third-floor flat directly across from Mo and Katherine. Identical to theirs, Sarah’s flat also had an enclosed porch behind the kitchen. Sarah knew nothing about Mo’s garden project, though some mornings when she was making coffee, she heard someone walking across the roof. Each time this happened, she assumed the building supervisor or some handyperson was up there, making repairs.

            The first time Sarah noticed a wet spot in the center of the love seat, she was surprised, and a bit baffled. Her initial thought was that she’d unknowingly spilled water from her glass, when sitting there eating and watching TV.

            But then it happened again. This time, she looked up. Sure enough, there was a round wet circle in the ceiling, right above her head.

            “Oh, no,” she said. As usual, there was something wrong that would take forever to get fixed, if the building supervisor took care of it at all.

            Sarah considered calling Anthony but knew he often didn’t answer his phone. So, she pulled on a pair of stretchy black yoga pants and a black knit top, and flicked her fingers through her hair. She had recently gotten this new layered style and felt disappointed that the cut hadn’t turned out the way she’d hoped, from the photo printed off the Internet. It wasn’t her stylist’s fault, but the pathetic hair she’d been stuck with. Too fine for every cut.

            Sarah gave her reflection a quick once-over in the full-length mirror, attached to the back of the bathroom door. She shook her head, hoping that might make the layers pop out, as her stylist would say, instead of lying flat, like a young boy’s cut. She was happy with the new color, though. Crimson streaks brightened her dull, brown locks, while drawing attention to her wide blue eyes.

            “What’s the point?” Sarah demanded of her reflection, knowing this effort over her appearance was so she wouldn’t feel bad seeing Anthony.

            She stood there a minute longer, trying to convince herself that Anthony’s opinion didn’t make a bit of difference in her life. Yes, she had once imagined herself in love with him, even though he was a good ten years older. She also reminded herself that she, not Anthony, had ended the brief, few-months affair. Even so, she couldn’t help feeling that Anthony hadn’t wanted her, not the other way around.

            The truth was that Anthony did care for Sarah. He just didn’t want to be monogamous. And Sarah did.

            When Sarah stepped out the door, she didn’t know that Anthony was on the first floor, getting the latest guy who’d been sleeping in the hall to depart. By the time she walked down to the second-floor, she could hear Anthony repeating in a loud voice, “You gotta go, man.”

 

            The day before Mo was set to unveil the garden to Katherine, Bud Clement, the building supervisor, knocked on Mo and Katherine’s door.

            “What’s that?” Katherine asked, looking over at Mo from her side of the kitchen table, a few feet from the stove.

            “I didn’t hear anything,” Mo said, which didn’t surprise Katherine, since she had much keener hearing than her husband.

            “There it is again. Somebody’s at the door.”

            “I will go,” Mo said. He stood up, pushed his chair out, walked across the kitchen, and hurried down the hall.

            A moment later, Katherine heard Mo’s over-friendly voice, followed by footsteps coming closer on the bare wood floor.

            “Bud’s here,” Mo announced, before entering the kitchen. “He’s gotta look at the roof. Says there’s a leak in Sarah’s flat.”

            As Mo walked Bud over to the porch and unlocked the back door, it didn’t occur to him that the garden he’d created, plant by plant by plant, might be a problem.

 

            When Bud came back the following morning, lugging tools to patch the roof, he announced, “You can’t have it. Use of the roof’s not allowed.”

            “What do you mean?” Mo demanded, trying to keep the anger he’d started to feel under control. “No one had told us this.”

            Bud slowly shook his head back and forth, as if dealing with a stubborn child.

            “I’m only letting you know what Mr. Ross says. He’s the owner.”

            “You told him?” Mo shouted, the anger having turned up the volume on his words.

            “What do you think? He wanted to know what happened to the roof. I told him all those plants were there and that was the cause.”

            “How do you know that was the cause?”

 

            Mo assured himself it wasn’t Sarah’s fault. Katherine felt otherwise. The moment Mo took Katherine up to the roof and showed her what he had done, and that Bud expected him to haul it all away, she said as much.

            “It’s Sarah’s fault,” she said, in between sobs. “You’ve done something so beautiful, Mo, and that selfish bitch is to blame for destroying it.”

            Of all the tenants, Katherine liked Sarah the least. More than once, Katherine had run into Sarah flirting with Mo in the hall.

            Sarah had a small, successful, public relations business, but didn’t seem to consider that work glamorous enough. So, she claimed to be a writer. There was nothing wrong with that, Katherine was willing to admit, except Sarah appeared to never actually write. She liked to brag that she had tons of ideas for novels. Katherine always wanted to ask her, “Can I read one of your books,” to put Sarah on the spot. But she never did.

            Katherine, on the other hand, had struggled for years to get parts in plays and improve her craft. Unlike Sarah, she was a serious working artist, not a wannabe. Of course, Sarah never asked Katherine about her work. Several of the tenants, including Michael, Anthony and Anna, had happily attended Katherine’s performances, but Sarah never bothered. If talk at one of the building gatherings turned to the latest part Katherine had snagged, Sarah did her best to snatch everyone’s attention away.

            While Sarah flirted with all the men in the building, even Michael who was gay and practically married to Tim, she fawned over Mo. Many times, Katherine wanted to grab that girl by her brashly dyed red hair, yank her across the room, and shove her out the door. She didn’t, of course.

 

            Mo was too kind to find Sarah at fault. Instead, he blamed himself.

            “I should have asked,” he said to Katherine, after she’d cursed Sarah another time, the lovely serenity of the garden making her more and more furious. “I should have talked to Anthony first. He might have gone to Mr. Ross and gotten his permission.”

            Another thought entered Mo’s mind.

            “Maybe it is not too late,” he said, running his fingers along the side of Katherine’s face, wiping away tears that had wet her cheeks. “I will go talk to Anthony now.”

 

            Sarah was glad that Bud had come quickly to take care of the leak. Once she’d discovered the damp circle in the ceiling, she started to worry. First, the thought invaded her mind of mold forming, then spreading throughout the flat, carried in the air, so she would have to breathe it in, damaging her lungs. If that wasn’t scary enough, she began expecting the ceiling to collapse, dropping pieces of damp, damaged framing onto the floor, leaving the room open to the elements, so who-knew-what creatures might crawl in and scurry around, making messes all over Sarah’s apartment.

            Sarah didn’t know that Mo had devoted hours every day to creating and tending a thriving garden right above her head. She also wasn’t aware that her complaining to Anthony had brought about the end to Mo’s dream. That is, until Katherine pounded on her door.

            “A garden?” Sarah said, trying to make out exactly what her next-door neighbor was accusing her of, as Katherine stood in the hall. “On the roof?”

The idea that Mo had planted an actual living garden at the top of her building sounded to Sarah like a joke.

            “How did he do that?” Sarah wanted to know.

            “He hauled pots and soil up the stairs for months. Every day, he was up there watering and weeding. It was going to be a space we could all enjoy.”

Not finished yet, Katherine spit out, “You could have spent time up there, working on those novels you claim to be writing.”

            The heat rose in Sarah’s face. It wasn’t fair for Katherine to accuse her of ruining this garden when she hadn’t known a thing about it. She was about to say that to Katherine but then thought about that sweet man, Mo, and how she must have hurt him.

            “I didn’t know,” Sarah said, her voice raspy and low. “I didn’t know that Mo was doing all that, making a garden for us. I just knew there was a leak and I wanted it fixed.”

Then she added, “I thought I needed to do something quick, because everything takes so long to get fixed here.”

            Sarah studied Katherine’s face after she’d made the last point and could see it had softened. Katherine, who’d lived in the building much longer than Sarah, and knew her neighbor was right about the time it took to get anything repaired.

            “Well, Mo’s gonna have to take it all away. All those beautiful flowers and herbs. Tomato plants. What a waste.”

            Now that Katherine wasn’t attacking her, just making her feel guilty, Sarah started to consider what they might do, if anything, to keep the garden. She knew nothing about building rooftops, and if there was a reason, other than meanness, for the owner’s refusal to let the garden stay. But from her experience in public relations, Sarah couldn’t help thinking there might be a newsworthy angle here.

            “I have an idea,” Sarah said. “Tell Mo not to do anything yet.”

            “What’s your idea?”

            “I’ll tell you after I’ve worked on it.”

 

            Over the past decade, local news had been dotted with stories about long-time residents no longer being able to afford to live in San Francisco. Just as Ross had done, landlords continually ferreted out loopholes in the rental laws, evicting tenants, and then jacking up the rent as much as the market would allow, which was considerable. There had been heart-wrenching tales of elderly Chinese men and women who had lived in their apartments for a half-century or more, suddenly finding themselves out on the street. At the same time, the homeless population had exploded. Regardless of the neighborhood, tent cities could be found outside residents’ doors, along with piles of trash.

            Before starting to work on her plan, Sarah asked Katherine to show her the garden. She followed her neighbor up the dark stairs, squinting from the brightness as she stepped outside.

            “Oh, my God,” Sarah exclaimed at what she saw.

            A sea of green greeted her, interspersed with little conversation areas. There were white and yellow roses, purple and pink bougainvillea climbing black wrought-iron trellises, and tall, delicate stems of lavender reaching for the sky.

            “Katherine,” Sarah said, suddenly overwhelmed by guilt. “I am so sorry.”

            Katherine turned toward Sarah, wiping her eyes.

            “This is incredible,” Sarah said.

             Then she promised, “We are not going to let that awful man, Howard Ross, take this away from us.”

            Sarah stepped slowly around the garden, shooting photographs from different angles, imagining several reporters she knew taking in the plants and feeling exactly what she felt, that this was something heavenly and shouldn’t be taken away.

 

            Two days later, Sarah knocked on Katherine and Mo’s door. As soon as Katherine opened the door, Sarah blurted out, “We’re having a press conference. I need Mo.”

             “What are you talking about, Sarah?”

            Katherine opened the door wider.

            “Why don’t you come in? Mo’s in the kitchen.”

            Sarah followed Katherine down the hall. The flat was exactly like hers. A handful of rooms opened off the hall, which terminated at the kitchen. Sarah knew that the formal name for this space was railroad flat, because the rooms appeared, one after another, like stations along a train line.

            Mo was sitting at a cherry red, fifties-style chrome and Formica table. He got up when Sarah walked in.

            “Sarah,” he said. She was reminded of the lovely way he pronounced her name, the first syllable sounding like the beginning of the word sari. “Good morning.”

            “Hi, Mo,” Sarah said, thinking as she always did, what a gorgeous smile he had.

            “Mo, Sarah just said she’s having a press conference and needs you there.”

            “Oh,” Mo said and laughed. “Are you going to make me famous?”

            He laughed again.

            “This is serious, Mo. I’ve scheduled a press conference for tomorrow morning. On the roof.”

            She waited a moment to see the effect of her words. Then she explained.

            “I sent out a press release about Ross wanting to take the garden away from us. I also emailed some photos. It’s a good story, and I think we’ll have a decent media turnout.”

            She went on.

            “You know that cute guy on Channel Two, Mitch Wallace? He’s coming. He’ll make people cry when he talks about how you, a refugee from Africa, put all this effort into creating a garden for your fellow tenants, and now will be forced to get rid of every single one of those beautiful, healthy plants, for no good reason. You have to be there, Mo.”

            Mo nodded, as if in agreement, though he didn’t yet know how he felt about being on TV.

 

            Somehow, the tenants all managed to crowd into the enclosed porch, at the back of Katherine and Mo’s flat. The female anchor, with her perfectly curled, thick brunette hair, previewed the upcoming report, about the threat to remove a lush rooftop garden, created by an African refugee. Taking each bottle of wine he’d brought, one red and one white, Michael topped off everyone’s glass.

            Conversations battled for space, as the commercial break ended, and the anchor did the lead-up to the story.

            “There’s Mitch Wallace,” Sarah announced, trying to quiet everyone down.

            “He’s so adorable,” Michael said, before Sarah shushed him.

            As Sarah had hoped, Mitch, in the wide-eyed, innocent way he reported human interest stories, related how Mo had been tortured in a Senegalese prison before fleeing to the United States. From that dark beginning, Wallace told the story of Mo wanting to create something beautiful and hopeful in his new country. The camera panned around the garden, as Wallace listed some of the plants. He aimed the microphone at Mo, and let him describe his efforts, hauling pots and soil up the stairs, a few, and then a few more, at a time.

            Wallace then explained that the landlord wanted Mo to get rid of it all. He said he had contacted the building’s owner, but his request for an interview had been rebuffed.

The report was exactly what Sarah had hoped. When it ended, the tenants cheered and applauded.

            The morning paper had a longer piece that delved into Ross’s maneuvers with his other properties, attempting to evade rent control laws and remove tenants, whose rents were low because they had lived there a long time. That night, two other local news broadcasts ran stories about the garden.

            In the wake of the coverage, Anthony gave Bud a call. Before he managed to say a word, Bud blurted out, “Ross’s mad. He’s getting calls and emails. You guys better be careful.”

            Anthony took a deep breath and said, “Mo’s not gonna take the plants away.”

            Then he told a lie.

            “We’ve talked to an attorney,” he announced.

            “Ross’s not gonna be happy,” Bud said, and hung up the phone.

 

            The weather cooperated as if recognizing the special nature of the occasion. Instead of blowing fog in from the coast, a warm wind drifted from the east, making the city feel more like Miami than San Francisco. Sunshine was abundant. Folks could be spotted all over town, women in summer dresses and sandals, and men in aloha shirts and shorts.

            Tenants started tramping through Katherine and Mo’s kitchen a few minutes after five, toting covered dishes, containing everything from green salads to meatless lasagna. Mo and Anthony each held onto a handle of Anthony’s large blue cooler, filled with ice.

The building’s residents crowded together in mismatched chairs, stuffing down salty chips and sipping more wine than was a good idea. Anthony tapped the side of his glass with a knife, and yelled, “Silence. Silencio.”

            “We want to toast our neighbor and friend, Mo, for his vision and hard work making this special garden,” Anthony said, gesturing around him at all the lovely greenery.

            The tenants raised their glasses and cheered.

            “And a toast to Sarah, for helping us stick it to our favorite slumlord, Howard Ross.”

 

            The process of converting rental units to condominiums was long, but not impossible. That’s what Ross’s attorney, Eric Weiss, told him, the morning after the tenants held their first rooftop potluck. Sitting across from Weiss, whose bald head gleamed under the bright, overhead lights, Ross listened, wondering how much this whole thing would cost. Before Ross had a chance to ask, Weiss said, as if reading Ross’s thoughts, “It’s gonna cost you, Howard. But once you put those units on the market, you’ll make a killing.”

            “Let me think about it,” Ross said, not yet convinced he couldn’t find a cheaper way to get the tenants out and raise the rents.

            “Don’t wait too long,” Weiss warned. “I’ve heard the council is trying to change the ordinance. They might make it harder for us.”

            “Okay,” Ross said, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling window behind Weiss’s back, with the view of the beautiful blue bay, thinking he ought to sell all the buildings and retire, buying that condo his wife, Ruthie, had always wanted in Maui.

            He loved Ruthie, even after being married to her for nearly fifty years, and figured she deserved to live out her days in beautiful Maui. But Ross had to admit he couldn’t imagine himself ever giving up his work. And the thought of spending the rest of his life sitting on a beach, watching one wave roll in after another, made him want to fix a dry martini and wash the very idea of it right out of his mind.

            So, no, he probably wasn’t going to take Weiss up on the plan, to turn the six flats on Sixteenth Street into condos and put them up for sale. That didn’t mean he’d given up on the idea of getting rid of those tenants, who always wanted something, except to pay him the amount of rent he knew he rightfully deserved.

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Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations and has been nominated for the story South’s Million Writers Award. Her essay, “If We Took a Deep Breath,” was selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, her second book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming from Cherry Castle Publishing (cherrycastlepublishing.com) in January 2017. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, The Flagler Review, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others, and in sixteen anthologies. www.pattysomlo.com.